KEPA Summit 2016 - Field Tours

The Outreach crew attended the Kainai Ecosystem Protection Agency’s annual environmental summit June 2, 2016 in Standoff. The staff were invited to take a variety of tours over the course of the day including presentations on wildlife monitoring, fire impact, sacred sites, agriculture, and animal husbandry.

Blood Tribe Agriculture Project

Thomas attended the tour on the Blood Tribe Agriculture Project (BTAP) to learn about the community’s various agricultural holdings. The tour group, which included a bus load of science students from Kainai High School, were shuttled around the reserve looking at everything from the 120 pivot irrigation network through to their 2,000 head livestock operation.

One of the highlights of the tour was a visit to the Blood Tribe Forage facilities. This agri-business division farms and processes high grade alfalfa and timothy for sale to international markets.

The Blood Tribe is the only First Nation in Canada to directly produce and market their own products on this scale internationally.

Last year they produced more than 60,000 metric tonnes of densely packed hay bales (double compressed). This year they hope to send 75,000 metric tonnes overseas. The hay is being used to feed livestock in foreign markets. One of their major clients is the world’s largest dairy operation in Japan.

Blackfeet Bison Herds

Rob attended the tour down into Montana to see the Blackfeet Reservation's two main bison herds. The Blackfeet Reservation just acquired about 90 bison from Elk Island in central Alberta. This deal was brokered as part of the Iinnii Initiative, which is a grassroots organization that works to repatriate buffalo to restore culture, language, and economy in Blackfoot Territory.

  Yearling bison from the Elk Island herd

Yearling bison from the Elk Island herd

“The Iinnii Initiative calls on the Blackfeet people to develop a new vision for the conservation of lands on the Rocky Mountain Front to help protect Blackfeet culture and to create a homeland for iinniiwa (buffalo). Realizing this vision will contribute to the economy and create jobs through new nature based business opportunities.”

  Winston Bruised Head (left) speaks with one of the bison ranchers

Winston Bruised Head (left) speaks with one of the bison ranchers

The Elk Island herd has just finished their 60-day quarantine and has been verified disease-free and 100% genetically pure. This weekend they plan to release the bison onto their summer pasture near East Glacier, Montana.

After meeting with some of the ranchers associated with the project, the tour group had a delicious lunch of bison burgers!

  Mike Bruised Head (right) talks to the group before lunch

Mike Bruised Head (right) talks to the group before lunch

Following this James McNeely, a member of the Blackfeet Reservation, took the group on a tour of the Blackfeet Reservation. This tour went from the dry mixed-grass prairie around Browning, to the jaw-dropping montane landscapes near Heart Butte and East Glacier.  

  Looking towards Glacier National Park...

Looking towards Glacier National Park...

Blackfoot Significant Sites & Ceremony

Ryan attended a tour lead by Travis Plaited Hair, visiting some important Blackfoot cultural sites around Southern Alberta. It provided wonderful insight into the history and tradition of their people.

The first stop was a Blackfoot sacred site just outside of Standoff. To many, it may seem like a big empty field, but locals refer to it as Sundance, or “Big Encampment.” The site has been used for generations for prayer and healing rituals, as well as a variety of different ceremonies throughout the year. As Travis put it, “What we do here, our ancestors did a thousand years ago.”

From there, the group travelled north to Okotoks, where the “Big Rock” resides. True to its name, the rock weighs nearly 20,000 tons and is about the size of a house! It’s referred to as a glacial erratic, meaning it hitchhiked hundreds of kilometers on the back of a glacier during the last ice age. According to the oral history of the Blackfoot, the cultural icon Napi presented a fur robe to the Rock in an act of respect, only to steal it back after the weather worsened. The Rock became very angry and chased the fleeing Napi for many moons, before growing tired and finally splitting in two.

  The "Big Rock" glacial erratic, part of the oral history of the Blackfoot people

The "Big Rock" glacial erratic, part of the oral history of the Blackfoot people

The second half of the day provided the chance to explore two similar, but very unique sites. The first, Women’s Buffalo Jump, located in a gorgeous stream valley, is usually closed to the public. This allows the area to remain undeveloped and undisturbed, in hope that the geologic and spiritual integrity will be maintained for generations to come.

   Travis Plaited Hair regales the group with engrossing tales

 Travis Plaited Hair regales the group with engrossing tales

The second, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the museum of Blackfoot culture. The museum itself, subtly built into the surrounding cliffs, is a marvel of design and an incredibly informative journey into the past. Long ago, Blackfoot communities from all around would gather to carry out a buffalo kill. Given the immense scope of the occasion, everyone had a specific role to fill and each was crucial in the overall success of the hunt. If strategy went according to plan, the herd would be driven off the steeps cliffs, their bodies respected as a gift that would provide nourishment and protection throughout the long winter months.

  The Buffalo Jump site and surrounding landscape

The Buffalo Jump site and surrounding landscape

Tracking Fire and Wolves in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

Nicola was lucky enough to spend all three days at the summit, running an OWC booth, networking, and absorbing as much information as possible throughout the daily presentations.

Led by Christina Eisenberg of the Earthwatch Institute, the Tracking Fire and Wolves field tour focused on the importance of integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge and western science into modern environmental research.

The first stop on the tour brought the group to a large aspen stand outside Waterton National Park, where the group observed an Aspen-Grassland area that has been managed with prescribed burns since 2008.

Christina and her colleagues introduced the group to the various aspects of their project, which included animal tracking, aspen transect data collection, and prescribed burning. The goal of the Earthwatch project is to document the diversity of the area, and ultimately return the ecosystem to its former productivity and health through monitoring and prescribed burns.

  Christina Eisenberg and colleagues explaining the ecological significance of the area

Christina Eisenberg and colleagues explaining the ecological significance of the area

The group was able test out some of the methods that Christina's team uses by learning how to track animals (mostly by looking for scat and tracks!); performing transect work; collecting tree diameters (to help determine the health and age of the aspen stand); and identifying native shrubs.

  Dave of the Earthwatch Institute demonstrating how to take tree diameter measurements

Dave of the Earthwatch Institute demonstrating how to take tree diameter measurements

Once the group had gotten a feel for the western science approach to this project, they headed off to the Blood-Timber limits near the Belly River Campground. After a relaxing lunch by the river, a Kainai elder, Wilton Goodstriker provided the group with traditional knowledge about the native species and tribal land use in the area. There is a lot that scientists can learn from the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of elders as they can offer ecological insights dating back generations.

  Elder Wilton Goodstriker providing traditional knowledge of the area

Elder Wilton Goodstriker providing traditional knowledge of the area

Elliot and Kansie Fox of the Blood Tribe took turns explaining their connection to these lands. Elliot discussed his experience tracking wolves in the area, and Kansie explored her path into the environmental field. All of the speakers discussed the changes they have seen on these lands and how human activity has impacted wildlife and ecosystem health.

The day ended with some final words from Christina as she invited any of the Kainai members and students to provide questions or insights from the day. As all of the day's speakers would agree, it is extremely important for traditional knowledge to be incorporated into modern science and land management.

Waterton Biosphere Carnivores and Communities

Sofie joined the tour of ranches within the Waterton Biosphere Reserve that had implemented measures to reduce conflicts with large carnivores. The tour was led by William Singer, an artist and entrepreneur from Standoff, and Jeff Bectell, the coordinator of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve’s Carnivores and Communities project. We were a small group departing from Standoff, joined by students from Tatsikiisaapo’p Middle School.

Our first stop was to a ranch on the Belly River. Here, a sheep producer began having problems with bears killing his lambs a few years ago. Large carnivores like to travel along waterways and riparian areas, and there have been increasing numbers of conflicts between large carnivores and landowners further east over the past decade or two. Generally, the producer told us, there is a “live and let live” attitude among ranchers in the area, but when a carnivore starts going after your livestock, something needs to be done.

In partnership with the Waterton Biosphere Reserve’s Carnivores and Communities project and Oldman Watershed Council’s Watershed Legacy Program, a solution was found. High-tensile electric fence keeps the bears away from the sheep; it also keeps the sheep from accessing the river, and allows the sensitive riparian area in the floodplain along the river to recover. (Side note: electric fence also provides recreation and entertainment to a class of middle-school students!)

  Electric fence keeps bears away from sheep, and sheep away from the river & riparian zone.

Electric fence keeps bears away from sheep, and sheep away from the river & riparian zone.

Our second stop was to a cattle ranch in the Drywood-Yarrow watershed. This producer has also installed electric fence (with support from Alberta Environment) to keep bears away from their livestock, and installed waterers and wind shelters (with support from Trout Unlimited) to keep livestock out of the stream. 

  Students of Tatsikiisaapo'p Middle School learning about cattle & bears, and getting hands-on with electric fence.

Students of Tatsikiisaapo'p Middle School learning about cattle & bears, and getting hands-on with electric fence.

He had also installed bear-proof doors on his grain bins, which have the same latches as those on bear-proof waste bins. He shared the sheep producer’s view on bears, stating that that unless a bear is causing trouble, he likes to see it.

After a tasty brown-bag lunch in the sun, we continued to our third and final stop to see another example of bear-proofed grain sheds. These cattle ranchers also farmed, and they described 3-dimensional elk fence, which involves two parallel fences spaced about 3-4 feet apart, to keep large animals out. They also had 7-foot high panel fencing with electric wire on the bottom to keep bear and elk out; these panels are portable so that they can move them when they are farming. “We’re Fort Knox to elk and bears,” the landowners remarked.

“If they respect our land,” they continued, “we can live together.”

  "We're Fort Knox to elk and bears." Bear-proof grain bins.

"We're Fort Knox to elk and bears." Bear-proof grain bins.

Have your say on Grizzly Bears

The Alberta Government recently released a draft Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, and is seeking public input. Visit the website to review the proposal and have your say!

 

Thank You, KEPA!

The Oldman Watershed Council would like to thank the Kainai Ecosystem Protection Agency for putting on a great 2016 summit and hosting these informative tours. We look forward to next year!

 

Don't forget to sign up to become an OWC member (it's free!), read our Blog, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out about future events in our watershed!